"Los estudiantes son magnificos," says Ana Melendez, a former El Salvador resident now living in Rockville.
"The students are magnificent," translates Steven Guckenheimer, 17, a junior at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville. Guckenheimer and eight classmates are on one of their regular visits to some elderly Spanish-speaking residents of the Town Center apartments on Monroe Street in Rockville.
The students, enrolled in Spanish IV classes at the school, have the chance to practice their conversational skills while helping the elderly residents learn English, according to their teacher, Hollace Domyan.
The visits "bring the language alive" for the students, Domyan said. "It's not just seeing words in a book, it's putting the words into practice," she added
Their Spanish-speaking conversatin partners also benefit, Domyan said, because many of them have little contact with family members and the visits help to "break up their days."
When the students and the elderly residents meet on Friday afternoons in the apartment house community room, warm handshakes and hugs show that the visits involve much more than language lessons.
"Ustedes son muy especiales," Robin Williams, 16, writes on a blackboard. "You are very special," translates Domitila Duarte, and applauds her new-found skill and young friend.
"They (the residents) are thrilled with the company," said Domyan, who initiated the visits in January. "The communication between the two groups is fabulous."
The students and five of their older friends spend the hour conversing in the two languages about their families and their experiences.
Gabriela Zapata, formerly of Colombia, uses the time she spends with students Patty Cassell and Kelly Wilcox, both 16, the practice her English.
The students show pictures of their relatives and of recent vacations and school events in an effort to help the elderly residents feel more at home in the community Domyan said.
The meetings are not restricted to the apartment house. The students planned a joint outing at the National Zoo this month. Several weeks ago they prepared a luncheon for their elderly friends and led them on a tour of the high school.
Manolo Duarte, a native of Cuba, described the Rockville school as "muy progresiva" (very progressive) -- more so than he remembers the schools in his homeland.
Although the elderly immigrants have been in this country many years, Domyan said, they have never mastered English and are lonely for visitors and for social encounters in their native tongue.
"The seniors are so enthusiastic they'd like the kids to visit daily," said Domyan, who has taught Spanish for 11 years.
Cataline Guzman, formerly of El Salvador, said it is gratifying that the young people bring to their weekly visits "mucho entusiasmo" (a lot of enthusiasm).
Carolyn Strine, 16, Patty Pier, 17, Nancy Bullock, 17, Matt Munter, 17, and Jimmy Fernandez, 14, gathered around Duarte as he spoke of his life in Cuba.
"I come here because I just like the people," Strine said, adding that the practice she gets with her Spanish is merely an extra benefit.
The first meeting was a bit strained, the students admit, because they were shy about speaking Spanish outside the classroom. "One girl was so nervous she fell off her chair," recalled Fernandez, who speaks Spanish fluently.
But their reserve soon dissolved as their hosts broke into a fast-paced chatter and served cake and punch to their visitors.
Most of the students say they plan to continue their visits through the summer and into the next school year.
"Estupendo (fabulous)," says Duarte, throwing a kiss to the teen-agers as they head back to school.